Monday, August 16, 2010

United Kingdom Space Program

The UK has shied away from having any kind of policy towards space since the 1970's. As with other areas of national defence and research the government has talked about cooperation with the USA or the EU but then backed out of making any meaningful financial contributions. Consecutive Labour and Conservative Governments have criticised manned space programs as wasteful and expensive however they have never made any real commitments to unmanned probes or satellites either civilian or military.

History of UK Space

Surprisingly the UK was originally one of this first nations in the space race. A close third behind the USSR and the USA. As part of its independent Nuclear Weapons System the UK began developing ICBM technology. Blue Steak was to be a liquid fueled medium range intercontinental ballistic missile. The project began in 1955 however with the difficulties post war Britain faced the project was eventually cancelled. The Americans offered Submarine Launched Polaris missiles and all rocket research in the UK was abandoned.

The Military Project did give birth to a civilian project. The Black Prince was to be an all British three stage launch vehicle capable of inserting satellites into orbit. However this project proved to expensive and lead to cancellation in favour of a joint European project (The European Launcher Development Organisation). The vehicle was to launch a satellite using a three stage rocket with the lower stage a British Blue Streak the middle stage a French built rocket and an upper stage built by the Germans. The program carried out 8 launches from Woomera in Australia however the German and French stages proved unreliable and lead to the program being cancelled. The Germans and French went off to collaborate on the Ariane Launcher while the UK muddled along with its own program.

Black Arrow was a Blue Streak derived launch vehicle able to lift 144KG payload into orbit. The Vehicle carried out 4 successful launches. Its last Launch carried out in 1972 launched the UK's first satellite Prospero. However it was a hollow victory as the program had already been cancelled before the flight.

The treasury decided that it was far better to use the cheaper American Scout missile for UK satellites launches. NASA also offered to Launch UK satellites for free however these offers mysteriously dried up once the UK had canceled its own program. While Black Arrow could have gone on to form a very successful commercial launch vehicle, as usual a lack of government vision and American blocking tactics have resulted in the present situation where the UK is alone amongst the great powers having no independent launch capacity and no real space program.

While UK government policy in the area of a space program has been totally lacking the UK does have a significant space industry. Especially in the area of satellite manufacturing. The UK accounts for 6% of the global space industry with highly innovative companies such as Surrey Satellite Technology making major strives especially in the fields of micro satellites. All in all space activity at present adds £6 billion a year to UK GDP and supports 70,000 jobs.

While other nations went to the expense of developing large rockets in the 1960 and 1970's the UK did not. These nations are now stuck with inefficient expensive rockets. They are also burdened with large inefficient government agencies that require constant funding to keep the industries that build the large inefficient rockets in business. The UK has none of these issues and with a little funding and allot of imagination we could have a world beating Space Program in place in a decade.

Most people see space programs as one of the most expensive parts of government budgets. However in terms of overall government spending space is a tiny part. Even NASA the worlds largest and most expensive space agency has an annual budget of just $18 billion (£12 billion). The UK alone spends £ 7 Billion on international aid with out to much difficulty bearing in mind all that money leaves the UK and does little for our economy. With the added tax revenue the government would receive even an agency the size of NASA would be affordable in the UK by simply scrapping the international aid budget.

Now I am not advocating that the UK set up a rival to NASA. Far from it. NASA is quite literally a waste of space and does more to hamper mankind's access to space nowadays that it does to help. Instead I am advocating that the UK starts a space program from scratch without a huge bureaucratic machine in place. A space program which is started from the outset of the goal of space commercialisation and puts British companies in the lead of this new industry.

I would advocate a budget of £3 billion per year to this program. About the same as the civil service presently spends on paper clips. This level of funding around 0.3% of GDP is well with in our capabilities. Especially if it can help to produce new industries and thousands of jobs.

This program would focus on
  • Cheap Reliable Access to Space
  • A Manned Space Program
  • Deep Space Unmanned Probes
  • An Independent UK Launch Facility
  • Earth Observation and Military Reconnaissance Satellites
Access to Space

The first priority of a UK space program would be to give the UK independent access to space. Now we could do what the Chinese and Indians are doing, building large expensive rockets trying to catch up with the Russians and Americans or we could take the lead in something new. Cutting out the dead end technology or multi stage rockets.

The Skylon Space Plane has been designed by British company Reaction Engines. What makes the Skylon different is its SABRE engines.

"One of the significant features of the Skylon design is the engine, called SABRE. The engines are designed to operate much like a conventional jet engine at up to around Mach 5.5 (1700 m/s), 26 km altitude, and then close the air inlet and operate as a highly efficient rocket to orbital speed. (See[6] for an independent analysis).

Operating an air-breathing jet engine at up to Mach 5.5 is difficult. Previous engines proposed by other designers have been good jet engines but poor rockets. This engine design aims to be a good jet engine within the atmosphere, as well as being an excellent rocket engine outside. The problem with operating at Mach 5.5 has been that the air coming into the engine heats up as it is compressed into the engine, which can cause the engine to overheat and eventually melt. Attempts to avoid these issues typically make the engine much heavier (scramjets/ramjets) or greatly reduce the thrust (conventional turbojets/ramjets). In either case the end result is an engine that has a poor thrust to weight ratio at high speeds, and so the installed engine is too heavy to assist much in reaching orbit.

The SABRE engine design aims to avoid this by using some of the liquid hydrogen fuel to cool the air right at the inlet. The air is then burnt much like in a conventional jet. Because the air is cool at all speeds, the jet can be built of light alloys and the weight is roughly halved. Additionally, more fuel can be burnt at high speed. Beyond Mach 5.5, the air would still end up unusably hot, so the air inlet closes and the engine instead turns to burning the hydrogen with onboard liquid oxygen as in a normal rocket.

Because the engine uses the atmosphere as reaction mass at low altitude, it would have a high specific impulse (around 2800 seconds), and burns about one fifth of the propellant that would have been required by a conventional rocket. Therefore, it would be able to take off with much less total propellant than conventional systems. This, in turn, means that it doesn't need as much lift or thrust, which permits smaller engines, and allows conventional wings to be used. While in the atmosphere, using wings to counteract gravity drag is more fuel-efficient than simply expelling propellant (as in a rocket), again reducing the total amount of propellant needed."

Skylon borrows from some of the R&D carried out in the 1980's by British Aerospace on the HOTOL While the Skylon is a high risk project the benefits are potentially massive. If the project worked the UK would have a lead both in the engines and vehicle design in an industry that could not only give safe, cheap and reliable access to space but could also revolutionise air travel. Allowing fast and environmentally friendly travel around the globe. It is estimated that development of the skylon space plane would cost £ 8-10 billion. The first part of the UK space program should be to fund Skylon to the tune of £1 billion per year over a 10 year period.

A successful Skylon would then be used for the UK's manned space program. With lower launch costs it may be possible to relatively cheaply look at a space station or even trips to the moon. However these goals should only be set once Skylon is operational.

Earth Reconnaissance and Military Spy Satellites

The second aim of the UK space program should be earth reconnaissance and imaging. Both for Military and civilian use. As part of this the UK should develop an independent launch complex. The launch complex could later be used for the Skylon Space Plane.

Looking around the globe the best location for this would seem to be Ascension Island. The Island offers a completely British Over Seas Territory with no claims on it from any one else. Its located very near to the equator making for more efficient launches and it already has a large RAF base on it with a run way long enough to land the space shuttle. While building the launch facilities would be expensive the benefit would be to give the UK a completely independent launch facility. There is no point in building an independent space program if we need to launch it from someone else's country i.e require their permission.

Obviously while waiting for Skylon it will be necessary to launch something else in the interim. Instead of trying to develop an independent multi stage vehicle I would suggest taking something off the shelf and manufacturing it in the UK.

Possibly the best rocket to take on would be the Falcon 9 rocket being developed by space X in the US. The rocket should offer a lower cost solution for launching our initial satellite's and probes. The rocket is designed to be launched from Guam and requires a reduced level of infrastructure and personnel. Making the Ascension Island facility easier to build and maintain.

The facility would fly a number of military and civilian missions. In terms of military missions to fly we should fly a number of different satellites.

  • TOPSAT constellation of 10 micro imaging satellites (£15 million each)
  • SAR Constellation of 5 satellites (£200 million each)
These satellites should be used for civilian imagery where possible in order to cover some of the costs. In addition there will be other earth observation and scientific mission to be flown. I would allocate a budget of £ 1 billion a year to the Ascension Island facility and the earth observation program. The Ascension Island facility should be used as much as possible for commercial satellite launches to keep down costs.

Deep Space Probes

Besides giving access to space the other main reason for establishing a space program is to restore national pride. The benefits of this should not be under estimated. Especially in a country like the UK which has struggled with its national identity since the end of empire. In order to give this much needed boost to national esteem I would allocate £1 billion to deep space probes. In order to reap the benefit of these mission they should be UK only mission rather than joint missions like beagle 2.

The program should start with relatively modest missions. Over time reaching for more exotic and difficult locations.

The Mars Pathfinder mission cost only $250 million dollars including launch costs while even the massive Cassini mission cost $3.24 billion. Allocating £1 billion pounds ($ 1.5 billion) a year to this program should allow for some major projects over a 10 - 15 year period.

I would like to see missions flown in the following order

  • Lunar Rover (sent to the south pole to look for water)
  • Asteroid reconnaissance (looking at near earth asteroid specifically looking for ice and minerals)*
  • Asteroid Belt reconnaissance (specifically looking for ice and minerals)*
  • Demos Lander ( Largest moon of Mars)
  • Demos sample return
  • Europa orbiter ( Using radar to look for liquid water on Jupiter's moon)
  • Neptune Orbiter and Triton Lander

*Several Identical mission to be flown

Most of these mission would be aimed at resource discovery. While it sounds like science fiction cheap access to space provided by Skylon would in time allow for commercial exploitation of asteroids and other space bodies. Having detailed knowledge of what resources are where would give the UK a big advantage when it inevitably becomes time to start dividing up the solar system. These are also the kind of mission completely neglected by the science geeks of NASA and ESA. Who are more interested in spending billion finding bugs or plating flags on Mars.

The UK Space Agency its self should not be an all encompassing group of scientists, engineers and administrators able to build and fly their own mission but should instead be a small group of evaluators channelling government money to industry and universities to fly the missions and develop the technology.

After the first 10 - 15 years the program should shift its priorities more and more towards exploitation of space rather than pure research.

Having a viable world beating space program is well with in the UK's means. Even a modest budget of £ 3 billion per year (just half the international aid budget) would allow the UK independent access to space for both commercial and military reasons. A series of ambitious deep space probes would give us a much needed national boost and the technology spin offs could create tens of thousands of new high tec jobs in the UK helping us to fix many of our economic problems.


  1. Very good points you wrote here..Great stuff...I think you've made some truly interesting points.Keep up the good work.
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  2. I fear that, what with the unequalled talent for economy of British scientists and engineers, whilst a dedicated British Space Programme would not just be good news for the United Kingdom, cultivating the political will to commit the country to such a programme would first require Stalin-esque purges of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom.